Thursday, December 3, 2009

Mitt Romney & Religious Intolerance

Tolerance? We have a ways to go

Exact reprint of USA Today article located here.

Americans still have a bias against Republican Mitt Romney, according to a study conducted during last year’s election. Not a political bias, but a religious one. The good news: When people understood his Mormon faith, the bias melted away.

By David E. Campbell, John C. Green and J. Quin Monson

It's now official: President Obama's honeymoon is over. And right on cue the Republicans are gearing up to run against him in 2012. Sarah Palin's book could launch her campaign, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty just went to Iowa. But the smart money is on former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney gaining his party's nomination.

Romney certainly has history on his side: Republicans prefer nominees who have run before. John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush and even Ronald Reagan all ran and lost before they ran and won the presidential nomination. Having run and lost in 2008, Romney is in a prime position to run and win in 2012.

His candidacy, however, faces a major obstacle that should concern all Americans: religious intolerance. Mitt Romney's membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the Mormon church) clearly hurt him in 2008. Polls showed that anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of Americans openly said they would not vote for a Mormon candidate for president. Mormons are hardly the only religious group to face such overt hostility. Polls show that Muslims, Buddhists and people without a religion are all viewed more warily by Americans. And as America becomes more religiously diverse, we can expect still more candidates from faiths that might be unfamiliar to many Americans, or those who profess no religion at all.

The good news is that accurate information about such unpopular religious groups can help the cause of religious tolerance in America.

What we found

The importance of information is illustrated by a study we conducted during the 2008 presidential primaries and recently released. The study was an online survey experiment with a nationally representative sample of 3,000 respondents. We provided randomly selected respondents with different statements about Romney and then asked whether they would vote for him.

Some were given a boilerplate biography that did not mention religion; others were told that he has been a local leader in his church; others were told he has been a leader in the Mormon church. Still others were told, "Some people say Mormons are not Christians." By comparing reactions to these various statements, we could see how each one affected a person's willingness to vote for Romney, and also how different kinds of people responded to the statements.

The claim that Mormons are not Christians was particularly potent. Indeed, Romney tried to put this issue to rest with a much-discussed speech on religion delivered in College Station, Texas, in December 2007. In it, the presidential candidate said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the savior of mankind. My church's beliefs about Christ may not all be the same as those of other faiths. Each religion has its own unique doctrines and history. These are not bases for criticism but rather a test of our tolerance."

Despite these statements, the results of our study — conducted not long after Romney's speech — suggest that his religion was a liability. When respondents were told about the claim that Mormons are not Christians, nearly one-third said they were less likely to vote for him.

Interestingly, the claim that Mormons are not Christians had virtually no effect on those people who reported a close personal relationship with a Mormon. This news, though, is presumably small consolation for Romney's supporters. There is little they can do between now and 2012 to encourage closer friendships between Mormons and their non-Mormon neighbors.

Our results do, however, indicate that there is something Romney's supporters can do to assuage concerns about his Mormonism. People who objectively know a lot about Mormons — that is, those who scored 100% on a short quiz on facts about Mormonism — were much less likely to be bothered by the claim that Mormons are not Christians. In contrast, respondents who claimed they knew a lot about Mormons, but who actually did not, were bothered most of all by claims about Mormonism.

Information helps

In other words, our study suggests that Romney's supporters would do well to encourage those who are troubled by his faith to become better informed about Mormonism.

Such a discussion would likely help Romney: Information helps and ignorance hurts his chances. More important, it would help broaden religious tolerance in America.

Romney was not the first and will not be the last candidate to suffer from a lack of knowledge about his faith. Even in 2008, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama suffered a double dose concerning his pastor in Chicago and the false claim that he was a Muslim — delivered as though the mere possibility should disqualify him for the office.

We take no position on whether Romney is right for the Republican Party or for the White House. Similarly, we take no position for or against other Mormon politicians, such as Nevada's Harry Reid, the Democratic leader of the U.S. Senate. Or, for that matter, on the fitness of any politician — Mormon, Muslim, or Methodist.

We do take the position that the whole country will be better off if there is no "stained glass ceiling" in politics for members of any religion or no religion at all. A good way to break such a barrier is for all of us to really know the Latter-day Saints — as well as all the other kinds of "saints" among us.

David E. Campbell, John C. Green and J. Quin Monson teach political science at the University of Notre Dame, University of Akron and Brigham Young University, respectively. The views expressed are their own and do not necessarily represent those of their institutions.